This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, November 25, 1992

November 25, 1992 - food for fines

A couple days after my wife and I got married, we stopped by the home town of my father -- Mountainburg, Arkansas. Mountainburg, 12 miles north of Ft. Smith, boasts about 454 people, most of them LaRues.

We pulled in to my grandmother's driveway. Nobody was home. So we drove another couple of miles up the hill to my uncle's house.

There she was. And what's more, she knew we were coming, even though we certainly hadn't told her we'd be within 500 miles of Arkansas. So how did she know? In the maybe ten minutes it took us to pull into town, check out her house, then drive to my uncle's, she had gotten #seven# phone calls. She knew what color car we were driving, what state our license plates declared, and more or less what we looked like. ("Might be Jesse's son. Never seen the girl before.")

In small towns, people look out for each other. Some might say, they look after each other too much.

But like a lot of people, I've spent much of my life looking for a community that somehow matches me, a place that feels like home.

What makes a community? Sometimes that's hard to say. Part of it has to do with recognizing that the people who live there #are# a community. It's seeing the similarities before the differences. It's also thinking that people have obligations to one another, a sometimes tricky balancing act of sincere concern and respect for privacy.

Some seventy percent of Douglas County residents have library cards. That's a sizeable slice of the community. It may be a community of its own. And the purpose of this column is to remind those people of their similarities -- and their obligations.

Here's how you are all alike:

~ you have a broad variety of interests and perspectives -- and think your library should reflect that variety.

~ you think children and books are a natural connection. You're right.

~ most of you are newcomers to the area, are highly educated, do a lot of driving, and have a deepening interest in the history of the area before you got here.

~ you keep some of your books out longer than you're supposed to. I'm not excluding myself here, incidentally.

This last point leads into my real focus: your obligations to others. I'm not just talking about your obligation to get back your books on time. I know most of you try your darndest. And I also know that those of you who are our very best patrons have checked out so many books -- about a quarter of which are children's picture books -- that it can be mighty difficult to find them all sometimes.

Here's how you can turn your troubles into someone else's good news.

From the day after Thanksgiving, two days after this column appears, to the last day of 1992, you can bring back your overdue books to any one of our library branches, and settle up all your fines for the price of just one can of food. You are strongly encouraged to bring in #lots# of cans of food -- but we'll cancel your debts for just one.

Mind, now, we won't forgive you for not returning a book at all. You still have to bring it back. But this Food for Fines program #will# cancel all your "late fees" for any of our wayward items.

At the beginning of 1993, as we have for the past two years, we'll gather all of these canned goods (or any other non- perishable food materials) and donate them to local food banks.

Why are we doing this?

1) We want to round up our inventory. If you're done with it, bring it back!

2) We want you to have a clean conscience for the New Year. You know it's the right thing to do.

3) We want to help out some other people in our community that might be having some trouble this year. If you can help ... why not?

Spread the word. It's as good a reason as any to take the time to talk to a neighbor.

Wednesday, November 18, 1992

Novmember 18, 1992 - the politics of intimidation

Maddy, my five year old daughter, came running into my office. She leapt up onto my lap, then looked at me intently.

I could tell that something was on her mind. So I met her fixed, earnest gaze, and asked, "What?"

"You got a booger hanging out of your nose," she said.

Such candor can, on occasion, be disconcerting. But on the whole, I find it refreshing. Sometimes, I'm not altogether sure what people are trying to tell me.

Take, for instance, a workshop I went to on November 7 in Colorado Springs. Billed as a Community Impact Seminar, it was sponsored by two groups. One of them is called "Focus on the Family," whose leading spokesperson is Dr. James Dobson, a child psychologist and prominent radio personality. The other group is the "Rocky Mountain Family Council," formed by a group of lawyers.

Both groups have described themselves as "conservative Christian." Each has become far more visible recently in what Focus on the Family likes to call "the public square" -- the world of politics and public affairs.

What bothered me came in the last part of the meeting. The speaker for the Rocky Mountain Family Council talked about two cases involving public schools in Aurora.

In the first case, some parents upset about the possibility of school-sponsored distribution of condoms to high school students contacted the Rocky Mountain Family Council for "help." The Council responded with a barrage of medical evidence and legal opinions about the use and distribution of condoms.

After considering this information, the school's health task force -- and eventually the whole school board -- changed their minds. The plan to distribute condoms was dropped, and according to the speaker, the board was going to develop a new sex education program based on abstinence.

If all this indeed happened as described, I would characterize it as "the politics of consensus." Some local people sought relevant information from at least one outside source, and presented it to local decision-makers. Everybody talked about it. The final decision was therefore better informed.

I think that's good. I even think it's commendable.

Now we get to the second, more disturbing case. It seems that an elementary school student checked out a book called "Witches" from the school library. His parents were also upset, partly by the subject matter, and partly by some of the drawings in the book. Again, a call was made to the Rocky Mountain Family Council.

This time, the Council used press releases to prod Channel 7 into interviewing the parents. On that night's news, the station showed some pictures from the book -- but with little black strips across the alleged "naughty bits."

According to the seminar spokesperson, the unnamed school principal then acted quickly -- and covertly. First, he told the school librarian to remove "Witches" from the collection. Then, he ordered her to yank any and all books with words like "witch," or "ghost," or "Halloween" in the title. Permanently.

At this point in the seminar over 600 people burst into sustained and impassioned applause.

Now this story, if true, bothers me. This is not the politics of consensus. It is the politics of intimidation and appeasement. This is not the reasoned consideration of objective data. It is the blind rejection of a whole branch of literature solely to avoid the pall of "bad PR."

Folk and fairy tales -- many of which feature witches -- are a longstanding part of our mainstream cultural heritage. To remove a list of unexamined materials solely on the basis of the words in their titles is not only blatant censorship, it's a little dim.

Encouraged locally by Focus on the Family and the Rocky Mountain Family Council, embracing such related organizations as Colorado for Family Values (the framers of Amendment 2), what may be an increasingly cohesive and politically savvy religious right is targeting school board elections, library board appointments, the Republican party leadership, and a broad range of elected positions.

Are they within their rights to do so? Absolutely. In a democracy, any group has the right to champion its beliefs, to try to persuade others to change their beliefs, and to seek to influence public policy.
Any group that takes the time to get organized, to inform itself about the political process, or even to assume the often thankless jobs of public service in the first place, can have a great effect on our culture.

When public agencies are strapped for funds, such political activists may wield even greater influence. School districts, libraries, and elected officials may shy away from any controversy lest they face voter defeat on entirely unrelated issues.

And in official silence, through back door appeasements and capitulation, a single pressure group can impose its values on an entire public institution.

I think that's bad. Sometimes, as Maddy has taught me, people need to speak up.

Wednesday, November 11, 1992

November 11, 1992 - voting and the library

I realize that this is a subject most Americans are utterly sick of -- Election Day, 1992. But it happens that on November 3, I was an Election Supply Judge, one of the people that works behind the scenes in the complex machinery of the democratic process.

The county had a lot of trouble this year finding enough judges to cover all the stations. That's a shame. In my past two years as an election judge, I have picked up some fascinating tidbits of county history.

The experienced core of the county's judges have lived here for years, sometimes generations. They know where all the bodies are buried, and have a great time talking about it. I've had a great time listening.

Election judges even get paid -- about $70 for the day.

But what's it really like? Well, according to my notes, it's like this:

4:45 a.m. - Wake up, check alarm clock. Have moment of panic, thinking that I must have set it wrong.

4:46 a.m. - Check second alarm clock, convinced that I goofed that one, too.

4:47-5:45 - Remove cat from bladder (third alarm), get up, feed cat, make coffee, take shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, make lunch and dinner snack, pack car.

6:00 a.m. - arrive at Perry Park Fire Station, the polling place. Wait for someone to open up.

6:10-7 a.m. - unload equipment, greet other judges, set up tables, equipment, signs, polling stations. Administer oaths, vote first booth, discover that it is completely unworkable, take it down, announce that polls are open. We're one booth short for what is predicted to be the biggest voter turnout in decades.

7-10:30 a.m. - frantic activity. 45 minute wait for most voters. Without being asked, people form two lines, one for each booth. Some use the occasion to study up on the sample ballot, or peruse blue ballot analysis by the Colorado Legislative Committee. Others -- the ones without "cheat sheets" cut out from newspapers or scrawled on the back of brochures -- spend up to 10 minutes working through the choices. But no one seems impatient.

10:30-11:30 - Room begins to clear out. I eat four cookies, brought by one of the other judges.

11:30 a.m. - first real break in day. Have a chance to talk with fellow judges for a little bit. Of the five of us, only one other has served as a judge before. The other three settle down to business like pros. No mistakes, everything very smooth. Trickles of voters now, but the long ballot and one missing booth stretches out the time. Am amazed how fast the day is going. Some of us grab a bite to eat.

2 p.m. - Actually quiet. Slowest time of the day. People walk in, step right up to the booth.

2:30-7:30 p.m. - Picks up, but never really gets busy again. Announce the closing of the polls. Break down equipment, count the votes. Everything adds up exactly right the first time through. Final tally: over 85 percent of the registered voters actually voted, about 30% more than usual. Thank the other judges -- a topnotch effort by some smart, funny, interesting people, one of them a near neighbor I had never had a chance to talk to before.

7:30-9 p.m. - in the company of two other judges, drive in to Castle Rock, drop off the booths and equipment. Then drop off the judges, go home to watch the returns. In bed by midnight.

For the past couple of weeks, you've read or listened to the opinions of countless experts about the lessons of Election Day, 1992. I'm not an expert.

But it strikes me that there are striking similarities between an election and a library.

Both elections and libraries are about choices. People have a lot of different opinions, and everybody is entitled to their say.

Some people vote smarter than others. I was frankly surprised by how many voters had obviously never seen or heard of many of the issues on the ballot.

I have a lot of respect for people's opinions, and enormous respect for democracy. But I find that I have a lot more respect for those people who actually take the time to do some research, even if they wind up disagreeing with each other.

Given the results of one of the votes -- the passage of Douglas Bruce's tax limitation amendment -- I suspect we'll all be voting more often, and on more issues, than we have in the past. I hope that more of you will not only make better use of your library to bone up on the things you'll be deciding, but also that you'll consider putting in some time as an election judge.

It's an education, it's fun, and sometimes, the cookies are incredible.

Wednesday, November 4, 1992

November 4, 1992 - virtual library

At a recent Colorado Library Association annual conference, I was asked to speak (with several other people) on something called "the virtual library."

It was a hot topic. As I wrote in my September 16 column, electronic access to library collections has proven to be very popular with the public, and to some, heralds an all-electronic, or "virtual" library. The meeting room was packed.

The first speaker, a librarian from a university in Nevada, highlighted the growing number of libraries whose catalogs are now available through a "scholar's workstation" -- meaning a PC with a modem and phone line. She also talked about a number of so-called "knowbots" -- software tools that in some respects, act like librarians.

One of these programs, called "gopher," is a kind of switchboard operator, connecting you to an information source (library catalog, campus information system, even electronic books), then returning you to a master directory when you're done.

Another is called "archie" -- a program that calls all over an international network of computers every night to see what's new in the way of computer programs, then updates its master list. You can send an electronic-mail message to archie asking for a certain program name, and archie will send a mail message back to you telling you which computer system has it.

Remember, archie is not a real person. But is archie a "virtual librarian"?

Another speaker cautioned against what she called "techno- phoria": it doesn't do anybody any good to have access to a lot of electronic catalogs if nobody actually has the book. This speaker, a university librarian in Fort Collins, displayed some grim charts showing the rising cost of academic journals, and the stagnant and/or declining budgets of many university libraries.

Put briefly, all library materials cost more than they used to. The nation's largest libraries are able to buy fewer and fewer items these days. Are computer networks going to adequately counteract this trend? She didn't think so, and neither do I.

My comments approached the issue from the public library perspective. I granted that the availability of many kinds of information -- electronic encyclopedias, dictionaries, newspaper articles, magazines indexes and summaries -- is a significant advance for libraries, and I welcome these new tools.

But in most discussions about the "virtual library" nobody talks about the recreational and social side of library services.

In Douglas County, for instance, many young families view children's story times as an important social -- as well as literary -- event. These programs introduce children to the excitement of books, to the shared culture of literacy, long before any of them have started typing.

And what about popular fiction, or reading for fun generally?

Some months ago, I sat my daughter Maddy, then four years old, in front of an "electronic book," a computer CD connected to a Macintosh. It was called "Grandma and Me," and she had a blast. The "book" not only ran short animated sequences (Grandma and child walking down to the bus stop, etc.), but also spoke the words in the book out loud.

Maddy could also click the "mouse" on various "hot spots" around the screen for some surprises. For instance, when she clicked on the hole in a tree, a little squirrel stuck his head out, squeaked, ran around the tree a couple of times, then dived back into the tree.

It took Maddy a good two hours to work her way through the book, and she loved every minute of it. The same book in print takes maybe 10 minutes.

All this sounds great, right? It's interactive, it's engaging, it's playful, and it wasn't even all that expensive. The "Grandma and Me" CD sells for about $25.

But I don't know anybody, once they've used this, that shows much interest in using it again. By contrast, Maddy has literally hundreds of regular print books that she wants to have read to her over and over.

Libraries are indeed at an interesting juncture. Increasingly, you'll see all kinds of information available electronically, sometimes long before it ever "sees print."

But as I said at the conference, until you can carry a virtual book into a virtual bathroom and get real relief, we're a long way from the virtual library.

We still need "real" libraries, with real books in them. And in my opinion, the printed book will be around for a long, long time.

It's a virtual certainty.